The NFL’s 2016 regular season comes to an end this Sunday and the exciting playoff road to the Super Bowl in February ensues. Each team has one game remaining and the questions on fans’ minds are now — what do the standings tell us, who is already in, and who can still win a playoff spot?
The 2016 standings and the NFL as we know it are actually the result of a 1970 merger of the National Football League (NFL) with its former competitor, the American Football League (AFL). The NFL, established in 1920, had been home to storied franchises like the Bears, Packers, Cardinals, and Giants. In 1960, the AFL was founded with a more offense-oriented philosophy than its predecessor and gave birth to franchises like the Broncos, Patriots, and Raiders. As the popularity of the AFL grew and “raids” of personnel began to skyrocket salaries in both leagues, plans for a merger were announced in 1966 with a window of four years to complete the integration. The new league would create two conferences within the NFL and became official in 1970 — the National Football Conference (NFC) would keep the old league intact and the American Conference (AFC) would represent the former AFL teams.
The AFC/NFC rivalry remains to this day, and during the merger construct, a match-up between the AFL and NFL champions was first played in 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, who each finished the season number one in their standings. This game, won easily by the Packers 35-10, was the first ever Super Bowl. At the time, the AFL was widely regarded as an inferior league competitively, and again the Packers predictably won Super Bowl II against the Oakland Raiders 33-14. It seemed like the AFL had become a punching bag for the old NFL until the events of Super Bowl III catapulted the game into the echelon it still enjoys in 2016. The NFL’s representative, the Baltimore Colts and their hall of fame quarterback Johnny Unitas were heavily favored to beat the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. It seemed unlikely that an AFL team could ever compete with the National Football League, but three days before the 1969 game, Jets quarterback Joe Namath made an epic guarantee of victory. The promise drove up interest in the game, Namath and the underdog Jets delivered victory 16-7 over the Colts, and since then the Super Bowl has become the most watched event in American television. Sorry for the history lesson, but it’s that time of year.
Nowadays the NFL consists of 32 teams, 16 NFC, 16 AFC, with each conference divided into four divisions, North, South, East and West. Each conference sends six teams to the playoffs, based on the standings. The winner of each division gets a playoff spot, and the next two winningest teams within each conference get a “wildcard spot.” The league has an elaborate structure for addressing tie-breaker scenarios, and teams are “seeded” going into the playoffs based on win/loss record in the standings for division winners first, then the wildcard teams. The positions determine not only a first round “bye” in the playoffs for the top two seeds of each conference, but another leg-up, as the No. 1 seed in each conference is guaranteed home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Super Bowl is held in a neutral location, featuring the winner of the NFC against the victor of the AFC.
Now that we have the ground rules, what does that mean for the standings going into the final week of the regular season in 2016? There are a team in each of the NFC and AFC that have already clinched a playoff spot, their division title, and a first-round bye — the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots. The Cowboys have also clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, rendering their game against the Eagles, who have been eliminated from playoff contention, irrelevant. The Patriots are playing division rival Miami on Sunday and the Pats need a win to guarantee home field advantage. The Dolphins have secured at least a No. 6 seed, but will be playing for momentum, making the match-up potentially competitive.
The 2016 AFC is all but locked up, with the Patriots, Raiders, Steelers, Texans, Chiefs, and Dolphins having clinched playoff spots. The battle for seeding may play out as the Raiders challenge last year’s Super Bowl champ, the Denver Broncos, who will try to end their disappointing season with an upset. The Steelers will look to “not lose” to the Cleveland Browns, but have little to gain with a victory, and the Texans are in the same boat against Tennessee. The Chiefs, like Miami, have seed position in mind when they battle the Chargers, but the current AFC standings offer few 2016 surprises.
The 2016 NFC, however, minus the Cowboys, still poses much intrigue, but the complexities of the standings thus far can be more than any of us can fathom without knowing the outcome of Sunday’s games. Aside from Dallas, the Falcons and Seahawks have clinched division titles, and the Giants have earned at least a spot among the NFC’s playoff teams. That leaves one division title open, the NFC North, being fought for directly between the Packers and Lions, in perhaps the most exciting game of the week, a sort of playoff before the playoffs. Winner takes the division, though there are countless scenarios where either losing team could still make the post season. According to Bryan Altman from CBS Baltimore
“The Lions-Packers game is the linchpin that either enables dream scenarios for some teams to come to fruition, or unravels them completely. The Lions’ possibilities run the gamut, from possibly clinching a first-round bye with some help, versus being eliminated from the playoffs completely and can-
Clinch NFC North and playoff berth with:
Clinch first-round bye with:
WIN + Seahawks loss + Falcons loss
Clinch playoff berth with:
The Packers and Lions fight for 2016 NFL standings. [Image By Rick Osentoski/AP Images]
As confusing as the Lions’ hopes may seem, it doesn’t come close to summarizing the myriad of opportunities in the 2016 NFC playoff picture, and there are even two fringe teams, the Buccaneers and Redskins, who can still make the dance with a win on Sunday and some standings “help” from other teams. Specifically, that makes the Giants/Redskins match-up another exciting game to watch, as well as the Buccaneers vs. Panthers. The Seahawks will be playing the 49ers, and the Falcons face the Saints. Both games have potential playoff implications.
As the NFL 2016 standings solidify by Sunday evening, we will know exactly which teams earned a right to playoff for a spot in Super Bowl LI (51) in Houston, and just who fell short.
[Featured Image by Charles Krupa/AP Images]